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    Reflections On Notre Dame Alumni Football Game

    FIGHTING IRISH
    FIGHTING IRISH

    FIGHTING IRISH

    July 13, 2000

    On July 8, 2000, in Volksparkstadium in Hamburg, Germany, a team of Notre Dame alumni football players met the Hamburg Blue Devils in Charity Bowl VIII. The Fighting Irish team was represented by players who had seen varsity action over the past 30 years in South Bend, Ind., and wherever this historic team traveled.

    Many of them had played in the National Football League, a handful were All-Americans, and there were numerous team captains -- but all had given up the game some years prior to putting on the pads one more time in Germany. This game was for charity, for friendship, and for a rekindling of the spirit that is truly unique to Notre Dame football. I happened to be the elder statesman of this team, and just happy to be out there with the rest of the guys, throwing the ball and trying to get us on the scoreboard.

    Pat Steenberge #11
    Class of '73

    One More Golden Moment?

    "Pass 52 Race, on one Pass 52 Race, on one--ready, break!"

    As I head to the line of scrimmage it all seems so familiar, yet so surrealistic. Is this real or fantasy?

    My mind races through a well-memorized checklist in the three seconds or so until I reach under center to start the cadence. Get the snap, reverse pivot, good hand fake, eyes into his stomach, he'll be open--just wait for things to open up, TD coming, hang it out there so the receiver can run under it, this will be complete . . . .

    "Set" (got to yell louder with those blasted whistles blowing)

    "Blue-11, Blue-11" (perfect--the safety is creeping up to support the run)

    "Hike"

    The snap is hard and clean. I step back with my left foot to six o'clock, ball into my stomach just like I learned in fourth grade, here comes the tailback, whoa, something on my right foot, falling down, on the ground, whistle blows, fourth down.

    As I jog to the sideline, a very long ways as I recall, to the questioning eyes of the coach, I wonder what just happened. Why did I go down? Did a lineman get pushed back onto me? Did I simply stumble on my own? That's a distinct possibility since it was 29 years ago that I last played real football. No, surely I got tripped. But I wanted so badly to complete that pass. We could have iced the game with a score, gone up by 18 points, and I would be a star again.

    The festive crowd of 19,000 fanatical Germans is still rockin', the music is still blaring as if I am at Woodstock, whistles are screeching, but disappointment sinks deeply into my gut as I try to explain what happened to NFL Europe coach Peter Vaas, our quarterback coach for this alumni game.

    Catching a sip of water, strange memories haunt me. This is all too reminiscent of Purdue in a downpour that September afternoon of 1971, when an errant snap got buried in the mud at the one-yard line and the Boilermakers recovered. The same trek to the sideline, Ara looking bewildered, my teammates distraught as time was running short and we continued to trail 7-0.

    Now, our very veteran team, whose average age is well over 30 years, will have to hold on with older legs, but with the same battle-honed determination that has been a trademark of Fighting Irish teams since Rockne. We have players here who were trained by Parseghian, Devine, Faust, Holtz and Davie, who have stood up to USC, Michigan, Penn State, Florida State and all the others who would make their seasons by defeating Notre Dame.

    Hamburg mounts a drive, aided by a mysterious fourth down interference call that ignites them and gives them belief. Touchdown, Blue Devils! Now this is all too dramatic, as we only lead by four points with too much time left in the fourth quarter. Why couldn't we have gotten a few first downs and run the clock some?

    Terry Andrysiak, a solid, confident quarterback, leads the offense back out, but after one first down we have to punt again. With less than one minute to play the Volkparkstadium is in utter chaos. It seems there are 100,000 fans here, and they are witnessing an unbelievable finish to the 1,000th game (does this really count?) In the storied history of Notre Dame football. If this is not just a wonderful dream, the first Notre Dame game of the 21st century is going down to the wire.

    Our defense is gritty, but certainly weary. Our wonderful hosts this week made sure that we were softened up by the bowl-like atmosphere of boat rides, July 4th celebration, press conferences, dinner-musical, and a generally grand time each night. Hamburg has not attempted to run the ball in two quarters, relying on a passing game a la Florida State. Why do they have to play that cursed Seminole Indian sound track whenever the Blue Devils complete a pass?

    Twenty seconds remain, a long fade into the corner where a Hamburg receiver is open, at the last moment Ty Goode leaps and tips it away.

    There is a confident tension on the sideline, as we have all been here before. For the members of the '88 national championship team which form the nucleus of this alumni team, they clearly expect to be victorious over all odds. The rest of us do, also, especially against a team from another country, and regardless of our individual ages.

    Eight seconds left, pass into the middle of the end zone, and Pat Eilers reaches up to bat it down.

    For alumni head coach and current Irish defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, this is a defining moment, where both legend and reality tell us that Notre Dame men always can dig deeper. He relates this to his squad during the last timeout.

    But, does Wes Pritchett at 34 years, an All-American 12 years ago, possessing unquestionable will to win, still have anything left? Do Melvin Dansby, Brian Hamilton and George Marshall, all brilliant players in their day, but whose best football is years behind them, have one more total effort of four seconds of action to give?

    Shotgun formation, snap, roll left, throw left and low into the end zone . . . . Interception, Ivory Covington, we win 14-10!

    The players and staff rush onto the field in mayhem as if we had just defeated Texas in the Cotton Bowl. There is hugging, grasping, hooting, embracing, savoring a spectacular completion to a truly unbelievable week. The simple innocence of youth returns for a fleeting moment, and the thrill of victory overwhelms each of us as the fireworks explode around the stadium.

    About forty-five minutes later the team assembles again in the locker room, having received the Jim Thorpe Trophy, accolades from the adoring spectators, and heartfelt congratulations from each Hamburg Blue Devil player and coach. We've also saluted each section of fans together, holding hands, Germans and Americans, paying tribute to their loyalty, and as tradition would have it, one final golden helmet salute behind our bench to the Notre Dame faithful.

    Presents are given to some of our hosts who treated us as well as any bowl committee had done. Axel Gernert, Hamburg owner and the person most responsible for making this dream come true, is praised for his faith and commitment to the Charity Bowl. Coach Skip Holtz, whose father over a decade of wins and losses had molded many of these somewhat greying men into champions, leads the squad in a rousing version of the greatest fight song of them all, the Notre Dame Victory March.

    As I hesitatingly shed my helmet, cleats, blue jersey, shoulder pads and stretch socks for what certainly now would be the last time, my mind blurrily races over the moments of the past six days in Germany. If only I could stop action each of those days on the practice field with the guys, the nightly dinners and laughter, the afternoon tours with such silly jokes, the one-for-all feeling amongst this very special gang of once great players, but still great people.

    Removing the thigh pads and knee pads from the gold pants, I carefully slip out the medals Father Riehle had provided us in a time-honored tradition of the pre-game Mass. I had requested and received four, one for each knee and each thigh. They worked!

    Center Rick Kaczenski, a trim 25 years young who had graduated from Erie Cathedral Prep only a quarter century after I had, came over and apologized for getting knocked onto me during the fourth quarter, causing the busted play. We laughed aloud and high-fived one another as I felt relieved to know it was not just my 48-year-old clumsiness that had caused the loss.

    In the misty dawn I ambled along the serene Lake Aubenalster in downtown Hamburg, having celebrated a final good-bye with this remarkable group of Notre Dame men, along with an amazing bunch of new German friends. It is now time to return to the beautiful reality that is my family and home in Texas. I am thankful for all my blessings as never before, clinging to a renewed understanding of just what makes Notre Dame so unique and special, and what separates football from all other types of sports . . . the people.

    Just in case you don't remember, we beat Purdue 8-7 in 1971.

     

     

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